• FARA: Freedom of the Press, But On the Government’s Terms

    March 31, 2018

    Tags: , , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America



    A bipartisan group of lawmakers called for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate if Al Jazeera, the news outlet connected to the Qatari government, should register with the Justice Department as an agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA.)

    This has broad implications for our First Amendment, our access to dissenting opinions, and in how the rest of the world views us.


    The lawmakers claim Al Jazeera “directly undermines American interests” and broadcasts “anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel” material. Al Jazeera would join Russian outlets RT and Radio Sputnik, Japan’s Cosmomedia, the Korean Broadcasting System, and the China Daily in registering as foreign state propaganda outlets. DOJ has also been asked to look into a range of other Chinese media.

    Ironically, the bipartisan request to force Al Jazeera to register comes amid a controversy over the network’s filming of a documentary critical of pro-Israel lobbying in the U.S. The network used an undercover operative to secure footage revealing possibly illegal interactions between advocacy groups and lawmakers.

    The Foreign Agents Registration Act was never intended to regulate journalism. The legislation in fact includes finely-worded exemptions for approved journalists, scholars, artists, and the like, who are not required to announce themselves as “agents of a foreign principal” regardless of what they create. The law was created in 1938 in response to German propaganda, specifically Nazi officials and those they employed to make pacifist speeches in then-neutral America and to organize sympathetic German-Americans. By requiring those working for the Nazis to register, and report their finances and spending, U.S. counterespionage authorities could more easily keep track of their activities.

    FARA law doesn’t even prohibit straight up propagandizing, though it seeks to limit the influence of foreign agents by labeling their work, apparently to help out Americans who otherwise would not be able to tell the difference on their own. The law specifically says “Disclosure of the required information facilitates evaluation by the government and the American people of the statements and activities of such persons in light of their function as foreign agents.” Indeed, the Atlantic Council claims these actions “do not suppress freedom of speech; instead, it serves the First Amendment by supplementing information available to the public.”

    Here’s a use of FARA in line with the law’s original intent: the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, whose job is to lobby Americans on behalf of a foreign government, in this case, to take vacations in Abu Dhabi, is a FARA registrant. You know who is up to what when the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority says they have decent beaches you should visit. Other typical registrants might include an American lawyer hired by Saudi Arabia to lobby Congress in favor of more arms sales. Being a foreign agent is happily legal and very popular with former Congresspeople and government bureaucrats; you just need to announce your employer.


    But FARA can also serve a more nefarious purpose, as a Catch-22 prosecution (a “compliance statute”) for those the U.S. wants to declare as foreign agents but who resist; if the feds want to taint you as a foreign agent, you either agree and register, or face jail.

    That is what happened in the case of RT and Radio Sputnik. Following the 2016 election, frightened officials demanded the Russian news organizations register as propaganda agents. RT’s editor-in-chief maintained her network was an independent news outlet, but chose to comply rather than face criminal proceedings, adding “we congratulate the American freedom of speech and all those who still believe in it.” Critics then swung RT’s snarky comment on free speech into “proof” it unfairly criticizes America.

    The use of FARA to allow the government to declare which foreign media outlets produce “news” and which produce “fake news” and propaganda is “a shift in how the law has been applied in recent decades,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists. “We’re uncomfortable with governments’ deciding what constitutes journalism or propaganda.”


    As the Justice Department wields the FARA weapon against journalists, here’s what they will face.

    Designation under FARA requires a media outlet label its reporting “with a conspicuous statement that the information is disseminated by the agents on behalf of the foreign principal,” a nutritional label for journalism. It also means the outlet must open its finances to the Department of Justice. It means Americans who choose to watch that media, or participate in its talk shows, or who work legally for those outlets, open themselves to accusations of “treason” (one political staffer was fired after being interviewed by Radio Sputnik.) It adds credence to the muddy cries of “fake news” used to shut out dissenting opinions. It gives credibility to groups like PropOrNot, which lists websites it “determines” are Russian propaganda, and Hamilton 68, which does the same for Twitter.

    Subjecting journalists to FARA sends a message about America. It encourages foreign governments to impose restrictions (Russia has already passed a law requiring outlets like CNN to register as foreign agents.) It uses the full authority of the American government to declare Al Jazeera, a network which reaches 310 million people in more than 160 countries, has no equal place within a free press because its broadcasts are “anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel.” In the specific case of Al Jazeera, it seemingly extends America law to cover anti-Israeli propaganda as well. As with attempts to claim Wikileaks is espionage and not journalism, this use of FARA says the U.S. will use its laws to harass those with “un-American” opinions.

    The use of FARA to restrict foreign journalists also adds to rising sense among too many already frightened Americans that our freedoms are being used against us. “The U.S. is at a huge strategic disadvantage when it comes to the New Media Wars because our information environment is so open and rich,” said one former CIA Deputy Director of Intelligence. Perhaps too many dissenting voices isn’t a good idea. The Internet is just too much freedom for the First Amendment to responsibly allow. Maybe the government should become more involved in what we say, hear, watch, and read, as Facebook and Twitter (who banned RT from advertising) do now, you know, for our own protection. Our open society is a vulnerability, not a strength.


    The roots of our most basic rights flow from the freedom of the press written into the First Amendment. The press must be unfettered in reporting so citizens can make informed decisions when voting, protesting, and petitioning their government. Government should play no role in designating good journalists from bad, licensing who can report, or otherwise interfering with access to a broad range of ideas. Sorting out the marketplace of ideas — opposing opinions, bias exposed and hidden — is supposed to be our job as an informed citizenry anyway.



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    Copyright © 2018. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

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  • Recent Comments

    • Rich Bauer said...

      1

      Americans these days get all the news they need either on Facebook or Fox News, depending on their political tribalism and distrust all the “nonproganda” news outlets like the Times and the Post. Let’s get real, “informed citizenry” is the real Fake news.

      03/31/18 11:34 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      2

      Jack Nicholson at court side weighed in with: “The American public cannot handle an unfettered press!”

      03/31/18 12:01 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      3

      “The roots of our most basic rights flow from the freedom of the press written into the First Amendment.”

      No, the roots of our basic rights flow from the ability of intelligent voters to recognize bullshit when they read it. The vast majority of this dumbass country can’t.

      Every day my opinion of this dumbass country lessens.

      Item: New York state lawmakers passed a bill on Thursday barring police officers from having sex with people in custody.

      The legislation passed unanimously after two former detectives, Eddie Martins and Richard Hall, were accused of raping an 18-year-old woman arrested on marijuana charges in September 2017.

      The woman, who goes by the pseudonym Anna Chambers, said the two took her to a parking lot where they raped her and forced her to perform a sex act.

      The cops, who both quit the police force in November, admitted to having sex with the woman and said it was consensual.

      Oh, was that wrong? Our law enforcement needs laws for this?

      03/31/18 1:36 PM | Comment Link

    • Joe said...

      4

      This absolutely cracks me up, and not in a good way. In my last days working for Uncle Sugar, I used to supervise a particular command center. We always had three TV’s running with the news on, to make sure that the USG (or at least my little part of it) wouldn’t get scooped by a news network – sad but true, and far from uncommon. When I started my shift it’d generally be CNN, Fox and ESPN (which isn’t news, I know, but your tax dollars at work.) On my watch we’d usually shift over to Al Jazeera, BBC and RT – which the guys loved, for the different take on, well, the whole world. (And also the female RT news readers – but that’s another story.) Invariably one of my Supervisors would wander in to “check on the troops” and then raise his eyebrows at my channel selections – my equally invariable response was “Just keeping tabs on the enemy!” Which was actually kinda sorta true, and not a bad thing really. Still and all though, these kinds of shenanigans with the press are just … bad, really bad IMO. Al Jazeera certainly isn’t perfect, but what news outlet is at this point?

      03/31/18 8:59 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      5

      Dumbass Americans. This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.

      04/1/18 2:03 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      6

      Bauer. So bought into the ruse by the founding plutocrats?

      04/2/18 7:27 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      7

      JP,

      Think back to your childhood school days, most of your classmates before you got tracked to accelerated classes were morons. These people are now voting for morons.

      04/3/18 9:43 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      8

      Bauer. I still maintain that the founders were plutocrats and floated out the ruse of a democracy and a Republic for proletarian consumption. Everybody’s happy- the ruling elite and the dupes who felt part of an exceptional Christian Democracy. I never fell for the democracy ruse.

      04/3/18 11:09 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      9

      Arthur Koestler in DARKNESS AT NOON posited that the masses are incapable of self governance during and right after a period of intense technological progress and seek an autocrat to sort of level things out after overwhelming social change. That theory might explain Trump’s appeal.

      04/9/18 1:41 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      10

      PT Barnum and Suckerberg have the same appeal.

      04/9/18 5:47 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      11

      Well not exactly Bauer. Most people do not want to be willingly swindled or exploited (Barnun-Zuckerberg) but will look to a rigid autocrat in hopes that such inflexibility can bring a semblance of order in their capsized life.

      04/9/18 7:52 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      12

      JP,

      It’s about common sense. It’s just not common. Majority of the people have below average intelligence.

      04/9/18 8:51 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      13

      We are living “Idiocracy.” NB. the star of the movie is average Joe Bauers.

      04/9/18 8:58 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      14

      Does anyone else think that perhaps Mueller is now doing everything to be fired? He could then exit a noble hero for truth and justice without any scrutiny of perhaps a less than competent and ethical investigation.

      04/10/18 5:38 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      15

      Mueller is not acting alone. He doesn’t run SDNY. He doesn’t authorize court orders. He didn’t raid Cohen’s properties. Trump will have to fire many many DOJ officials if he tries to stop ALL the investigations. This s all moot when the Dems take the House in November. Trump will then find some pathetic excuse to resign.

      04/10/18 8:33 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      16

      Bauer- Mueller may feel getting Trump to fire him is the best way to end Trump’s reign. That’s a big gamble.

      04/11/18 9:48 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      17

      It’s a gamble because Trump may feel he can survive an impeachment attempt by firing Mueller or Sessions or others. Trump is gambling the country is not in the mood for a messy regime change.

      04/11/18 9:56 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      18

      No Saving Coward Paul Ryan

      The rats are deserting the sinking GOP ship

      04/11/18 10:46 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      19

      Trumpie: I am the only one who matters.
      Trumpie: An attack on me is an attack on America.

      Putin should be alarmed. Trumpi is mentally disturbed.

      04/12/18 2:49 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      20

      Trumpie:Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all! In any event,

      Trumpie:Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!” You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!

      04/12/18 4:17 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      21

      Richie Scillia’s Law: When you have an idiot in power with lots of military power, shit happens.

      Donald Trump- damn turd pol

      04/12/18 8:30 PM | Comment Link

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